posted on February 4, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Once a band is tenacious enough to reach the 30-year mark, its creative output usually slows down significantly. Not the Church. From a steady stream of official albums and solo projects to art and books, members of the influential Australian quartet never stay idle too long.

Last spring, the group’s career milestone was commemorated here by An Intimate Space acoustic tour, with setlists containing a song from every studio release, mainly performed in reverse order. Back Down Under in October, they were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame (equivalent to NARAS, which oversees the Grammys).

More recently, longtime fans have been able to revel in Second Motion Records’ back-catalog reissue campaign, starting with the first four albums: Of Skins and Heart (1981), The Blurred Crusade (’82), Séance(’83) and Heyday (’86). All were remastered and now include rare photos and bonus tracks, plus guitarist/singer Marty Willson-Piper’s fascinating liner notes about the church’s history and recording sessions. The Michigan record label also put out Deep in the Shallows, a double-disc singles compilation. Four subsequent studio releases and a limited edition EP box set are expected in the months ahead.

Next week brings White Magic, lead singer/bassist Steve Kilbey’s second collaboration with Martin Kennedy of Aussie electronic group All India Radio, arrives at music retailers.

And this week the church launched its Future Past Perfect tour, a month-long electric counterpart to last year’s stripped-down outing, which kicked off Wednesday night at El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. (As a bonus, everyone in attendance received a free updated mini-souvenir program, something you don’t see very often.)

While other groups might opt to perform an entire album or two over a multiple-night stand, the church chose to do three in one, each representing a different decade of its existence. “This is a world premiere,” Kilbey announced before the first hour-long set, covering 2009’s hypnotic Untitled #23. “We’ve never done this and never played some of these songs live before.”

“Or will again,” added a noticeably slimmer and better-groomed Willson-Piper, with a mischievous smile.

“Cobalt Blue” opened the nearly four-hour show on an ethereal note and immediately transfixed the seated audience. Willson-Piper quickly moved from one guitar to another and back again. “Deadman’s Hand” found Kilbey and drummer Tim Powles’ lush voices meshing superbly. “Space Saviour,” a slow chugging rocker, had all the musicians gradually building steam before ending in a noisy barrage.

Both Kilbey and Willson-Piper were in jovial moods. When one fan yelled “you kick ass,” the guitarist responded, “we try to do it more delicately these days.”

Tour multi-instrumentalist Craig Wilson provided airy keyboards for the subtle “On Angel Street,” during which Kilbey was quite animated, venturing to the front of the El Rey stage. Joined by female vocalist Tiare Helberg (a regular contributor on Church-related music) and a roadie on extra bass, the sad song “Anchorage” boasted a captivating, full-bodied sound. Kilbey used lyric sheets and dramatically waved them around while singing.

Following an intermission, the church returned for the second hour-long set, centered on 1992’s Priest=Aura, an esoteric collection that became a band and fan favorite despite modest sales.

This time, the music did all the talking. Audience members that provided polite applause before suddenly cheered loudly after Aura. Fittingly, floating ectoplasm images were projected on the backdrop. Guitarist Peter Koppes’ amazing whammy bar workout amid the triple axe attack on a psychedelic “Ripple” got an equally enthusiastic response (two guys behind me kept yelling “whoa” after every extended guitar solo).

Koppes also shined with some chiming tones and slide work on the poppier “Feel” while Willson-Piper shook his head and had fun while soloing. The cabaret vibe of “Witch Hunt” worked extremely well. A trippy take on “The Disillusionist” saw Kilbey using the lyric sheets again and providing one of the night’s most dramatic deliveries, robustly leading the sea-shanty chorus and ending with a poetic recitation. The crowd gave it a standing ovation.

Gradually unraveling songs are common from the church. The nearly 10-minute long “Chaos” — all claustrophobic sounds, sinister guitar effects and white noise — truly lived up to its title. Kilbey clutched his face in mock agony and fans cheered wildly. The set concluded with the instrumental “Film,” evoking a late-’80s Goth-rock mood.

Another half-hour intermission elapsed. Then it was time for what many Church followers had anticipated all night: 1988’s Starfish, the band’s biggest-selling album in America. It remains one of their strongest efforts, though Willson-Piper has gone on record with the opposite opinion; he writes that it engulfs you with “pure simplicity” in the tour program.

Kilbey’s understated vocals were nearly whispered during “Destination,” driven by Koppes’ searing leads and Willson-Piper’s inspired playing. The former used a spacey effect in place of the bagpipes on the signature hit “Under the Milky Way,” as the latter guitarist played a beat-up 12-string. The dreamy track still sounded transcendent and unique.

Seeing American currency displayed on the screen for an eerie “Blood Money” reminded me of its expert use in a Miami Vice episode; here, it sounded particularly sharp. The warm jangle enveloping “Lost” featured a brief lyric snatch from Springsteen’s “Backstreets.” Willson-Piper really proved his mettle amid the lightning-fast arpeggios in “North, South, East and West,” dazzling guitar work on the rocking “Spark” (for which he also ably handled lead vocals), an intense “Reptile” and smooth closer “Hotel Womb.”

All told, this was a brilliant show from the church. Hopefully they’ll film an upcoming tour stop for future DVD release.

– by George A Paul

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